The 1930s was the breakout decade for ski sport in California and across much of the nation. Despite an economic depression, increasing numbers of Americans took to the slopes. In the first two decades of the 20th Century, winter sports evolved from individuals enjoying casual ice skating, sledding and tobogganing to organized, competitive cross-country ski races and ski-jumping events.
Early in the decade, European ski instructors imported a new, dynamic, parallel turning style known as the Arlberg technique, first developed in Austria. Ski equipment evolved, too. Stiff wooden skis got shorter and easier to turn, bindings improved and uphill rope-tow systems were popular for alpine skiers who wanted lots of turns and runs during the course of a day. It was a huge improvement over the previous era of an arduous climb up a mountain for one long schuss back down.
In California, the construction of a year-round highway leading to Yosemite Valley and the area’s stunning beauty pushed Yosemite National Park to the forefront of the state’s winter sports development. At Yosemite, skating rinks, toboggan slides, cross-country ski races and High Sierra mountaineering tours combined with world-class alpine scenery to offer California’s best competition against the splendor and reputation of the European Alps.
The Truckee-Tahoe region had been in the winter sports business for years, but it was at Yosemite that the Golden State thought it had its best chance to compete against Europe’s famed, world-class resorts. By the winter of 1932, skiers could access a slope that had been cleared of trees and brush for skiing by the National Park Service. Development of the Badger Pass Ski Area moved forward with a new experimental electric lift installed for the winter of 1935. This cable-drawn toboggan could carry only a few skiers at a time, but it sure beat sidestepping up the slope for each run.
The April 1935 Olympic alpine trials at Mount Rainier, Wash., represented the beginning of U.S. national downhill racing competitions. It was slow in coming. The Europeans had been hosting contests for about 20 years and the International Federation of Skiing (FIS) had held its first annual world alpine championships in Switzerland in 1931. But in the United States, the National Ski Association had still not organized an event to pit top Eastern and Western racers against each other in order to determine a national champion.
The Americans were under pressure to prepare their best amateur downhill racers for the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
The 1936 Games were going to be the first to allow alpine ski events. Despite the popularity of the sport in both Europe and the United States, Scandinavian countries had insisted that the Winter Olympics be limited to cross-country skiing and jumping competitions with no alpine skiing where Europeans dominated. The FIS finally convinced its Scandinavian members to allow a men’s and women’s slalom and downhill combined event for 1936. To prepare for this upcoming Olympic competition, the National Ski Association decided to select America’s first official national alpine team by holding an Olympic tryout at Mount Rainier. The event also doubled as the first U.S. Alpine-combined nationals.
These pre-Olympic contests represented the beginning of U.S. national downhill-racing competitions. The competitions brought together America’s top racers, coaches and the sport’s leaders for the first time. The betting money was on American skier Richard “Dick” Durrance, followed by Hjalmar Hvam and Hannes Schroll. Durrance, a freshman at Dartmouth, had spent six years in Garmisch-Partenkirchen learning to ski among Europe’s top racers. At age 17, he became the fastest in his age bracket in the 1932 Bavarian championship race. The following year, Durrance placed 16th in the world-famous Arlberg-Kandahar downhill and finished 35th in slalom in a field of 80 elite Europeans. In 1935, Durrance was considered America’s top speedster.
Norwegian-born Hvam had immigrated to the U.S. in 1929. In 1932, he won the national Nordic-combined championship at Tahoe’s Olympic Hill (now Granlibakken). Indicative of Hvam’s exceptional athletic ability, three years after his victory in cross-country and jumping events at Tahoe, the Nordic champ was entered to compete in the downhill and alpine combined.
But few knew much about Schroll from Austria, a surprise entrant at the competition. Known as the “Red Devil of the Tyrol,” Schroll had a reputation for ripping down the mountain. In 1934, Schroll had flashed to first place in the challenging Marmolata Race in the Italian Alps; his trophy was presented to him by Dictator Benito Mussolini. The victory earned Schroll a trip to the United States to demonstrate his abilities as one of Austria’s best competitors. It was also a ticket to safety out of a troubled Europe that in a few years would explode into war.
Schroll was 26 years old when he stormed the fledgling U.S. racing circuit. He was dashing, athletic and so fast on his boards that he had won more than 100 international ski titles in Europe. Schroll quickly proved his chops by crushing the competition at Mount Rainer. On race day the course was plagued by poor visibility and icy rutted snow that some felt left the results too much to chance, but Schroll flew down the cloud-shrouded racecourse with confidence, yodeling as he went. Schroll finished a stunning 1 minute 7 seconds ahead of Durrance who took second place. With his superior technique and daredevil style, Schroll also easily won the slalom, which gave him a sweep of the downhill, slalom and the combined. But on his victory, Schroll was immediately hired as director of Yosemite Ski School at Badger Pass, a professional, paid job that eliminated him from Olympic competition.
The 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were the last Games held before World War II forced their suspension. German leader Adolph Hitler presided over the opening ceremonies. Before the Games, the International Olympic Committee declared that ski instructors could not compete because they were professionals. Angry Austrian and Swiss skiers boycotted the alpine events with the exception of a few Austrians who decided to represent Germany. Medals would be awarded based on the combined times of the downhill and slalom races. Emile Allais of France, who later become Squaw Valley’s first head of Ski School, placed third. Durrance performed the best of any American, coming in 10th place. The men’s gold medal winner was Germany’s Franz Pfnuer, who skied the two courses on his long and cumbersome jumping skis.